1902 Encyclopedia > Catherine II (Catherine the Great)

Catherine II
(also known as: Catherine the Great)
Empress of Russia
(1729-96)




CATHERINE II, empress of Russia, was born at Stettin in 1729; by the dethronement of her husband Peter III., and the exclusion of her son, she ascended the Russian throne in 1762, and occupied it till her death in 1796. Her father, who was Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst in Upper Saxony, served in the Prussian army. Her mother, a peevish, hard-tempered, and pedantic German of the old school, gave her a severe education, which, however, did not crush but strengthen the masculine temper of her daughter.

Catherine the Great image

Catherine the Great of Russia



The Empress Elizabeth, having selected her nephew Peter, the duke of Holstein Gottorp, as her successor on the throne, had requested a sister of Frederick of Prussian to be the wife of the future emperor. But aware of the extraordinary manners then prevalent at the Russian court, Frederick shrunk from the proposal and suggested the princess of Anhalt-Zerbst. Proposal being made in that quarter and thankfully accepted, the princess, whose original name was Sophia Augusta, was conducted to Russia by her mother in 1744; after some preliminary religious instruction she received the name of Catherine, and was admitted into the Greek Church, and was at length in 1745 with due splendour married to Peter, who was only a year older than herself. The marriage proved an unhappy and ull-sorted one. While Catherine grew up to be a handsome, strong-minded, and ambitious lady, Peter passed his life apparently on the very borders of idiocy. Though not destitute of generous and even noble impulses, he was silly wayward and extravagant. Excluded from all serious employment, and indeed incapable of it, he spent his time in drilling a troop of dogs that he kept in a kennel adjoining his wife’s sleeping apartments, executed marital law on the rats he used to train to the same military functions, and felt very angry when Catherine ventured to laugh at the extravagance of his proceedings. From early boyhood he had been habituated to strong, and, as he grew up, he was intoxicated every day. He insisted, too, on making his own wife confidante in the ceaseless love intrigues he carried on with the ladies of the court. Such was the husband to whom the poor girl of fifteen was married, and the man who was to have uncontrolled power over a vast empire. For a long time Catherine did her best to induce him to act in a reasonable way, but with little success. His wild and drunken habits continued, and, from mere caprice as much as anything else, he became more and more alienated from her.

Though Catherine was thus severely tried during those early years of her married life, the natural firmness of her character bore her through, and her great acuteness and adroitness soon enabled her to gain firm footing in the court. She act herself resolutely to learn the Russian, language, and soon acquired a perfect mastery of it. She made herself thoroughly acquainted with the history, manners, and institutions of the country, and identified herself completely with the people around her, so that she became a thorough Russian in character and sympathies, and, when occasion required, knew how to move the Russian heart. The best foreign culture of her time, too, she made thoroughly her own, being as assiduous reader of French literature during the long inactive hours of her youth. Voltaire and the other philosophes of the 18th century were her favourite authors; she professed to be a discipline of the new humanity they preached, expressed the highest reverence for them, and corresponded with some of them in after-life.

In this way, while her husband wasted his life in every kind of grotesque extravagance, Catherine was engaged in cultivating her mind, and in learning to understand her strange surroundings. Indeed the Russian court of that era was nearly as extraordinary as her husband. Since the death of Peter the Great (1725) the crown had been again and again a plaything in the hands of intriquing courtiers, mostly of German origin. To accomplish a revolution, to pull down one ruler and set up another, and dispatch the leaders of an opposing faction to Siberia, it was necessary only to gain over a few of the guards. In such a way had Elizabeth, youngest daughter of Peter the Great, won the crown in 1741. She had some natural capacity for command, but lived in the utmost licence, in which she was only too perfectly imitated by the court. Placed in such a position as this, Catherine had a difficult part to play, and required for it all the deftness and insight of her nature. But she succeeded. She gradually acquired a considerable influence over the mind of Elizabeth, who admired her cleverness and beauty. The courtiers of both sexes learned to respect her. Even Peter came to recognize the superiority of her understanding, and though he never liked her, used to ask her advice in his many perplexities. But she did not escape the contagion of the court. In accordance with the prevailing custom, she became involved in one love intrigue after another. Consequently, when children were at length born of her (Paul, the eldest, in 1753), their paternity was matter of serious doubt.

In this way she lived the beginning of 1762, when the death of Elizabeth opened the way to a very different career. The poor, half-imbecile Peter was now called on to leave his silly employments, and undertake the government of the most extensive empire in the world. All the schemes he embarked in were marked by a wild generosity and sense of justice; but, unhappily, in almost every one he managed to give deadly offence to the susceptible national spirit of Russia. Being a devoted admirer of the great Frederick, he gave back with impetuous haste all the advantages won in the Seven Year’ War, sent home all the Prussian prisoners, restored the provinces torn from Prussia, and concluded peace and then an offensive and defensive alliance with his hero. Himself a Lutheran in his early years, he made little account of the religious etiquette of the Russian court, and still further alarmed the clergy by threatening to lay hands on the property of the church, while he grievously offended the soldiery by introducing the Prussian uniform and the severe Prussian drill. The ambition of Catherine would probably have been satisfied with the prospect of governing Russia through her husband, but he was too wayward a person to be an obedient instrument; and he soon publicly insulted her beyond forgiveness by compelling her to decorate his mistress, the Countess Woronzoff, with the order of St Catherine. This and other matters, and the growing alienation of a long and distasteful married life, brought on a crisis. It became clear that they could not live together; and Catherine began to adopt precautionary measures in self-defence. She had little difficulty in doing so most effectively. The Orloffs, influential persons in the Russian guards, were devoted to her; the eldest; Gregory, was her lover. Those men, with the help of the Princess Dashkoff, Count Panin (the tutor of her son Paul), and others, planned the overthrow of Peter. Early on the morning of the 9th July (1762), Catherine was awakened at the palace of Peterhof by Alexis Orloff with the injunction to act immediately; they had been betrayed. Accordingly, she set out the capital, and finding Gregory Orloff on the spot, appealed to the guards, who were easily induced to raise the standard of revolt. In the church, the priests anointed her regent in the name of her son, while, outside, the Orloffs had her proclaimed empress in her own right. After that, going in procession through the streets she was joyously saluted empress of Russia. In the meantime, Peter, all unaware of what was going on, was busy drilling his favourite German guards at Oranienbaum. On proceedings to Peterhof he found that Catherine had vanished, and suspected the truth. He was urged to fight, but all his fortitude forsook him. Next day he abdicated, expecting freedom to retire to Holstein; but he was compelled to proceed to Ropscha, where on the 17th, the Orloffs, after an unsuccessful attempt to poison him, strangled him with their own hands in the most revolting manner. Of this part of the proceedings Catherine seems to have had no knowledge. Thus easily, and apparently to the satisfaction of those concerned, was a revolution effected, by which a beautiful and ambitious woman, a foreigner, ascended the Russian throne, to the exclusion of the rightful occupants. For some time, however, Catherine did not feel quite secure, and had to trust to the influence of her admirers in suppressing discontent. The soldiery at Moscow were disposed to recent the liberties taken by their compeers in the disposal of the crown, and seven among the guards at St Petersburg doubtful symptoms appeared. But, eventually, they were all bribed or threatened into acquiescence. A conspiracy formed to place on the throne Ivan (a descendant of a brother of Peter the Great), who had already been emperor a few months in 1740, also proved abortive, and cost that unfortunate prince his life. Then years later (1773), A Cossack, Pugatcheff, who gave himself out for the dethrone Peter, raised an insurrection in the Volga region, which, being supported by many of the extreme orthodox party and by the peasantry, threatened to prove formidable. But the undisciplined bravery of his troops was of now avail against the forces of Catherine; he was defeated, taken, and executed at Moscow. Her son Paul, whom she disliked and neglected, was placed under the strictest surveillance to the end of her reign.

As soon as she was securely seated upon the throne, Catherine began to attend to the foreign interests of her empire. Here she zealously observed the traditions of Russia. Debarred in so many ways from the free development of their resources, and surrounded in almost every direction by weak and semi-barbarous neighbours, the Muscovites had been constantly aiming at the extension of their frontiers especially towards the sea. This policy Catherine took up, and no native Russian could have better carried it out in its calculating steadiness and unscrupulousness. One of her first steps (1763) was to expel the Saxon duke of Courland, and to put Biron, a creature of her own, in his place; and by ceaseless intrigue she so managed things in Courland, that it was eventually glad to be incorporated with the Russian empire (1795). Towards Frederick she took a threatening attitude at the beginning of her reign; but finding nothing offensive to herself in the correspondence of the king with her late husband, and seeing that great profit might be derived from the good-will of Prusssia, she concluded with it in an offensive and defensive alliance, which continued to the end of Frederick’s reign.





It was chiefly with a view to Poland that this treaty of alliance was made. The first result of it was the advance of a Russian army to the Vistula to compel the election of Poniatowski, an old lover of Catherine, to the throne of Poland (1763). But this was only the beginning of troubles. The old question of the toleration of dissenters soon turned up; one confederation that of Radom, was formed by a party of Polish nobles to enforce, and another, that of Bar, to resist toleration. Catherine supported the former. The confederation of Bar was defeated and broken up, and its members flad over the frontiers to Turkey and Austria (1768). The Turks, alarmed and incensed at the progress of Russia on Polish ground, fanatically rushed into a war (1768-1774) for which they were not prepared, and were disgracefully beaten both by land and sea. The Russian arms marched victoriously through Bessarabia, Moldavia, and Wallachia to the banks of the Danube; while a fleet, led chiefly by English seamen sailed from Cronstadt round and coasts of Western Europe into the Mediterranean, and after sweeping the Levant burned the Turkish fleet in Tchesme Bay (1770).

After the Turks had been so thoroughly disabled, Catherine had leisure once more to attend to the state of Poland. The liberum veto, the freedom of confederation, the want of the middle class, the want of union and of a healthy public spirit, the oppression and brutalizing of the peasantry, and many other causes, had reduced Poland to a state of incurable disease which it is impossible to describe. During the Seven Year’s War the Russian armies had incessantly marched unchallenged over the Polish territory; that splendid opportunity for shaking off the northern incubus was allowed to pass way. Lately, famine and pestilence had so ravaged the country that pigs and dogs devoured the unburied bodies of men; a loaf of bread could not be had for a hundred ducats. But it was from no benevolent feelings towards Poland that Catherine wished to interfere with its territory; instead of favouring the efforts made towards political improvement, her aim was simply to prolong the state of anarchy till she was ready to enter upon as large a share of it as possible. Frederick was the first to suggest a partial partition of Poland as the best way out of many existing difficulties. The project was dropped for a time, till Catherine took it up, and invites Prussia and Austria to join in it. An agreement was at last come to (1772); and a common fund was raised to bribe the Polish diet, which gave its consent the following year. Catherine, in this and the two ensuring partitions, seized the lion’s share, in all about two–thirds of the Polish territory. By the peace of Kainardschi with the Turks (1774), who resigned all pretensions of supremacy over the Tartars in Southern Russia, Catherine was free to occupy all the northern shore of the Black Sea. One Tartar khan was expelled, and another was induced to abdicate; the Tartars were massacred, and a flourishing country reduced to a wilderness. The Crimea, Kuban, and Taman were finally annexed to the Russian empire (1783).

Towards 1787 Catherine began to entertain still more magnificent schemes of conquest. She made a progress as far as Kherson through the midst of flourishing towns, villages, and farms, by fine roads, amidst festivals and illuminations, all of which Potemkin had artificially extemporized in the wilderness, in order to conceived her how flourishing the recent conquests were. One of the gates of Kherson bore the inscription, "This is the way of Byzantium." Catherine was going to fulfil the dreams of her French flatterers by chasing the Turk from Europe, and restoring the Byzantine empire. The Turks were accordingly provoked into a new war (1787-92), and were again beaten everywhere. Important events in Poland, however, arrested the progress of Catherine on the Danube, and induced her to make a peace with Turkey (Jassy, 1792), by which the Dniester became the boundary between the two countries.

England and Prussia had been taking a hostile attitude to Russia. Under the furtherance of Hertzberg, the Prussian minister, many reforms had been introduced into Poland, and a constitutional hereditary monarchy established (1792). But a confederation of nobles, opposed to these salutary changes, invoked the aid of Catherine, who was only too glad of an opportunity to interfere; and as the progress of the French revolution began to upset all existing political combinations, and to discredit everything like constitutionalism in governing quarters, Prussia found it prudent to acquiesce in the arrangements of Catherine. She restored all the old abused and seized upon whatever territory pleased her, allowing Prussia a small share of it (1793). The resulting attempt at a national rising of Poland under Kosciusko failed; the Russian armies entered the heart of Poland and stormed Warsaw (1794); and along with Austria and Prussia, Catherine effected the last partition in 1795.

Thus was an event consummated, which some historians denounced as the foulest deed in the history of the world, and others justly not only as necessary to the order and tranquility of Europe, but as a vindication of Heaven’s laws on those who have contemned them. In any case, Catherine must almost bear the responsibility of it, and in her it would be useless to seek for any other motive than an unscrupulous ambition. She had skillfully taken her measures for it, in securing the acquiescence or co-operation of Prussian and Austria, and in finally pushing it on while these and the other powers of Central and Western Europe were more and more involving themselves in the terrible struggles of the Revolution. She was a great hater of the Revolution; but while others were endeavouring to suppress it, she profited by the opportunity to accomplish the partition of Poland.

In the domestic government of Russia, Catherine professed to act on the principles she had learned from her French teachers. Most of her plans, however, proved illusory in a country where all the elements and conditions of an ideal theory of government were wanting, even if Catherine had been perfectly resolute in her aims. The attempts to introduce a code of laws on the model of Montesquieu was a failure; but in the administration, especially the administration of justice, in the furtherance of education, of industry, and of commerce, real improvement seems to have been effected. All her schemes vitally suffered in two ways; from the absence of trustworthy public servants, and from the defects of her own character. In this, as in other reigns, bribery and corruption were prevalent to an extraordinary degree, and Catherine intrusted the government to her favourites and to upstarts, to the exclusion of the nobility. In the capital, at her court, and in her own circle there reigned the most systematic immortality, which she encouraged by her example. French admirers used to call her the Semiramiss of the North. Mr Carlyle calls her a female Louis Quatorze. She justified both comparisons by her beauty her masculine ambition, and her summary disregard of virtuous restraint. One favourite was dismissed after another; but Potemkin eclipsed all others by the extraordinary union of qualities most requisite for success in Russian,—beauty, daring, extravagance, ambition,—and in the length of time his influence over Catherine continued. From 1775 till his death in 1791, that is, for a period of sixteen years, he was supreme; after Catherine’s personal inclination for him had abated, he supplied her with new favourites and retained the power for herself, in all essential points directing Russian politics during that long period. To all her lovers she was munificent, not only during their season of favour, but after their dismissal, loading them with presents and pensions to such an extent, that altogether they are estimated to have cost Russia about £20,000,000. Towards the end of her reign discerning men began to fear that such extravagance, and the corruption attendant upon such a state of things, might lead to the exhaustion of the empire. In fact, the magnificence of her court, the marvelous extent of her empire, her foreign conquests, and the imposing position she held among the sovereigns of the world, only served to bring into more painful relief the moral corruption, the semi-barbaric violence, the hard-hearted cruelty, and systematic unscrupulousness which characterized the Russian court and the Russian policy. Things grew worse towards the end of her reign. The progress of the French Revolution damped all her sentimental enthusiasm fro reform. The friend and correspondent of Voltaire and D’Alembert, and the patronage of Diderot, lived long enough to prohibit the publication of French works in Russia. She died of apoplexy in November 1796.

The best account of Catherine’s early life in contained in the Memoirs written by herself in French, of which there is an English translation (1859). See also Hermann’s Geschichte Russlands; Carlyle’s Frederick the Second, vol. vi.; Rulhière’s Histoire ou anecdotes sur la Révolution de Russie en l’année 1762, and his Histoire de l’Anarchie de Pologne. (T. K.)






The above article was written by Thomas Kirkup, M.A.; author of An Inquiry into Socialism.




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